Capsule Review: Beyond the Lights, Dirty Dancing, Like Crazy

Here’s a quick wrap of the films I watched for the month of July, dedicated for the romance genre. Along with local release The Breakup Playlistthree flicks with talented leads proved to be worthwhile in their own right as they show how love can be: a career and life saver (Beyond the Lights), a provocative teacher (Dirty Dancing) and a broken rebuilder of relationships (Like Crazy). Through their earnest depiction of love, they become a welcome addition to the ever-evolving and already-expansive genre, which is arguably the closest to the viewers’ hearts.

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BEYOND THE LIGHTS (2014)

Gugu Mbatha-Raw delivers a star-making performance in this rousing romantic drama about a young diva at crossroads between her commercial success and personal life. BEYOND THE LIGHTS is enlivened by strong performances and sensitive direction, despite a cluttered narrative, that makes this story of a suffering star more alive and surprisingly compelling. A slight glimmer could be the superfluously written character of Kaz, but that’s not to say leading man Nate Parker’s portrayal is not worthwhile. He and Mbatha-Raw radiate an electric chemistry in an against-all-odds setting, sparking an inspired sense of purposefulness for Nooni in getting herself together after a suicide attempt. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood delicately curates scenes that expose Nooni’s vulnerability (most notably her exquisitely soulful rendition of ‘Blackbird’) and the searing demonstration of the unrighteousness she experiences which the audience can only helplessly sympathize (particularly the unwillingly indecent number with her villainous former fling/rapper). Such events deepen the crack on Nooni’s façade but what finally shatters her is the decisive release from her domineering mother-manager (Minnie Driver). In spite of the built-in romance, the emotional resonance is more powerful between Driver and Mbatha-Raw, whose mother-daughter relationship is richly established from their humble London beginnings to Nooni’s Hollywood stardom under Macy’s overbearing control. While the dramatic premise of a distressed superstar might be familiar to the point of cliché execution, BEYOND THE LIGHTS satisfyingly illuminates an earnest representation of its story, mainly by the marvelous Mbatha-Raw whose commitment to the role reveals her remarkable range of talent. As the film’s voice, heart and soul, she captivatingly anchors the romantic drama’s authenticity. BEYOND THE LIGHTS is a fine example of a movie crossing a familiar road that manages to reach its destination with perceivable poise and existential truth, thus producing a self-assured and meaningful entertainment of its kind.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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DIRTY DANCING (1987)

One of the 80’s iconic hits, DIRTY DANCING remains to be an indulgent retreat to a pop cultural revolution whose legacy more than transcends to the time of its’ life initial release. Viewers of old and new (me in the latter) are in for a gratifying vacation where a privileged daughter Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) immerses herself to the underground world of dirty dancing, among the many social barriers she hurdles while striking a romantic relationship with the resort’s dance instructor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). Choreographed by Kenny Ortega (High School Musical series), DIRTY DANCING titillates with its sensual dance moves while allowing a spatial recognition in bridging the gap between the narrative’s sociological environment. Some may argue that the themes present in the film is addressed simplistically, leading to a premeditated harmonious gathering of its socially-segregated cast. But it’s better to see DIRTY DANCING through Baby’s eyes as an unusually-set coming-of-age film. More than her passionate awakening with Johnny, she blooms to become an empowered and resolute lady; Baby may be sheltered and pampered but she is not blind to the small injustices and stereotypes she observed and experienced first-hand. By learning how to dance (which she athletically manifests), Baby begins a self-conscious revolution that instigates discernment of the real world, apart from where she’d grown into, with the help of new acquaintances and love. DIRTY DANCING lifts itself as one of the most pleasurable romantic movies ever made; the superlatives rooted from the irresistible sight of Swayze in his prime along with the dreamy premise that invites a quixotic aesthetic. While the modest story lack the gravitas, it compensates with a hook on memorable cinematic elements (including an Academy awarded original song) and resonating entertainment that passes through the ages.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

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LIKE CRAZY (2011)

A rare kind of infectious and shattering romantic drama, LIKE CRAZY is a sober chronicle of falling in and out of love, albeit in a testing and unnatural circumstance. If only Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna’s (Felicity Jones) future selves warned their younger counterparts of the complications they’ll face if Anna had just followed her foreign visa restriction, the fragmentation of their loving relationship would have been avoided. But such extraordinary situation of these two lovers separated by thousands of miles, only to feel despair and disenchantment in their overdue union, is the backbone of an intimate, bittersweet study of love in its euphoric highs and dismal lows. The radiance and rust in Jacob and Anna’s relationship are palpable and profoundly acted by Yelchin and Jones who are vital in actualizing the somber reality of their characters’ impractical predicament. Guided by director Drake Doremus’ narrative outline, the lead actors’ improvisation through succinct and frank dialogue is shot point-blank to the audience’s emotional investment. Having witness the irresistible attraction between the two protagonists, it hurts to see them be forced to pull apart and push towards each other as the cohesiveness of their love wear down from their physical distance (she lives in the United Kingdom while him in the United States) and dissolution of loyalty with new romantic interests during the grueling visa ordeal. The then starlet Jennifer Lawrence shines with her honest vulnerability as Jacob’s on-and-off girlfriend Samantha, who steals tender moments that counter Jones’ steely persistence. Jacob and Anna may have lost the spark of their relationship but the genuineness of the emotions blazes LIKE CRAZY to become a raw and affecting (un)love story.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Film Diary: The Breakup Playlist

As a cinephile, my expectations of a romantic musical are quite high, especially since I am a fan of John Carney, creator of the beloved indie Once and the mainstream ensemble Begin Again. If you haven’t seen both films then it’d be easier to embrace this Piolo Pascual-Sarah Geronimo starrer, which is a favorable change of melody among Star Cinema’s monthly (and sporadically Viva Film’s) churning of commercial romance. But as a reconciled Gino and Trixie belt out their signature hit at the end, I found myself singing along. All the pretentions about THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST are stowed for a more critical filtration. I give credit where it is due and for this particular film, I’d be singing some praises (and subtly call out flat notes on the side).

Fashioned as another ‘could-be fatal’ mainstream romance, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is surprisingly indie at heart. It may not bear the poetic and clever flare of That Thing Called Tadhana but writer Antoinette Jadaone finds the commercial and creative harmony that her earlier released You’re My Boss ruefully lacks. For this particular cinematic case, the genre’s rejuvenation is fitting. After all, it showcased the much-anticipated pairing of the industry’s two biggest stars. But the star power could implode the overall output if the narrative aspect is ignored for the sake of guilty sugar-coated pandering. Fortunately, the creators (also noting Director Dan Villegas), are learned of such criminal onscreen offenses and redirected their attention to the story, setting and situation of its characters, thus organically steering a journey for its two protagonists. Gino and Trixie are more than just lovers; they are dreamers whose passion for music became their stage for commercial success, romantic relationship and personal growth. Hiring the ‘pop star royalty’ and ‘ultimate heartthrob’ to play relatively modest and struggling characters is an irony that may not work most of the time, but Geronimo and Pascual’s adapted personalities fit agreeably in the scaled-down indie music scene. Indulgently throbbing of heartbreak songs and thoughtfully inspired from its humble musical burrow, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST builds an identity that sets it apart from its homogeneous and forgettable contemporaries. A book may be judge based on its cover but a single song doesn’t create an impression for a whole playlist. It may be frankly intense of emotions (to the fault), but you’d be a surprise on how subtle is the contextual heftiness the film offers.

Sarah Geronimo as Trixie.

Sticking to its title, the movie is divided into five ‘tracks’ that retreats and jumps (to the past and present) in the eventful years of Gino and Trixie’s relationship. The narrative cuts aren’t exactly inventive in manipulating the pacing but through Villegas’ guidance (like the unconventional flow of English Only, Please), the editing is refreshing especially if THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST wants to portray the formulaic love story. The dialogue, given the predictability of the consequences, occasionally slips to the ‘heard’ territory where catchy one-liners land with precision, but there’s a fresh scene that smartly incorporates foreign album titles into a playful (better yet flirty) repartee. The opening act is a meaty appetizer of the looming break-up’s gravity, followed by a sympathetic song-and-cry number as Trixie tearfully watches Gino perform without her. A steeled Trixie is introduced in the first track (‘The Reunion’, 2015) as she is reunited with her former band for a business proposition; her attitude a vast contradiction to the soulful and gentle law student who first encounters Gino as her adviser in a summer music camp (‘How We Met’, 2009). The track names would have been ingenious if they were titled after an ‘original song’, but such preference is better put off, along with the other nitpicking stones cast on the movie (which I’ll discuss later on).

Photo grabbed from Star Cinema Forums website.

Paano Ba Ang Magmahal” is THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST’s banner song, composed by the talented Yeng Constantino and originally performed by Erik Santos and Lizel Garcia in 2012. Geronimo and Pascual’s duet is pulsating of passion and made gritty by the alternative rock vibe, a welcome diversion from the typical pop love songs of the preceding romance flicks. Here’s where the film is committed in living its chosen setting, by acclimatizing to the underground venue of independent music. Popular rock artists are enlisted for supporting roles (Rocksteddy’s Teddy Corpuz and The Dawn’s Jet Pangan as band members) and cameos as themselves (Wolfgang’s Basti Artadi, Spongecola’s Yael Yuzon, and ex-Sugarfree vocalist Ebe Dancel), that bring legitimacy to the story’s immersion to indie. Rarely does a local film put ‘Original Pinoy Music’ (OPM) to the spotlight (I forever roll my eyes on this certain critique) and OPM becomes the most valuable element in THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST. As the more adept singer, Geronimo crosses from pop to rock ballad with an inspired somberness that matches Trixie’s personality. Pascual may not possess the musical chemistry with her but it does make him in-character of Gino’s egotism and insecurity. The movie doesn’t delve much into the dynamics of Pencil Grip but Trixie and Gino’s band doesn’t feel like a perfunctory device for the sake of story-telling. The self-awareness on its setting is worth appreciating because for once, the genre is not retold with a too-good-to-be-true narrative, but one where the ending is neither happy nor sad but realistic.

One of the film’s climatic moments.

THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST isn’t the most novel romantic drama of the recent times but the potency is undeniable given the emotional maturity that it allowed its characters to experience. Geronimo shows depth as an actress through Trixie’s multifaceted role as a lover, daughter, and a woman grown. Pascual remains irresistible whose ragged attractiveness doesn’t outshine his personal struggles. As staples of the genre, both are reliable in more than fleshing out the emotions of their characters and their acting prowess are more recognized because of the better onscreen material. Though definitely inspired from international releases, THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is no Once and most especially Begin Again since Carney’s filmography has always geared to platonic love. The Villegas-directed film should be treated independently as a sporadic feature where two blockbuster stars personify the sincerity of love in a modest approach. With a narrative that doesn’t beat around a bush and a reassuring goodwill to OPM, these added features makes the movie more layered and rich in substance. Constantino also lends her musical genius on two other songs that are equally fervent of Trixie and Gino’s feelings. In the end, the film is a love story. What matters is how romance is retold and presented and among its monthly releases, Star Cinema and Viva Films finally achieved the correct melody.

THE BREAKUP PLAYLIST is a well-intentioned romantic drama that earns points for its narrative discernment, emotional rawness, and genuine self-awareness that many of its contemporaries miserably lack. It may not reach its full potential but inexplicably, it’s a rejuvenating step in re-tuning the genre, credits to Villegas and Jadaone. Hopefully, this type of movie will not be a one-hit wonder.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Next Romance attraction for the month of July: Capsule Reviews

Postscript: Three volumes, two moons, and ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

When it comes to the running joke among bibliophiles as to which fantasy realm they’d want to live in to, I’m not going to pick among Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Lord of the Rings series. In fact, I’d choose the least outlandish and most normal, whose wall between reality is almost penetrable, but given the unusual circumstances, is still considered as a fantasy world. Set in one of my dream cities to-visit in the year 1984, when mystery is at its peak once two moons appear, it would be Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s curiously amalgamated mega-novel, 1Q84.

I admit; being drawn to the world of 1Q84 was more of a sentimental indulgence than the fascination on its fictional elements. The latter is after all, a literary device that inadvertently lured the protagonists back together after twenty-years of separation. Amidst the dark themes of cult and crime, Murakami created a bizarre love story, made entangled with the numerous façades of intrigue. It would appear that the mortality and romantic future of the leads are pitted against a superior force (ironically called as the Little People) but in the end, is triumphed by the most powerful of all…

(Warning! Spoilers are coming if you haven’t read the book.)

Love and hope have always connected Aomame and Tengo since their last meeting as ten-year olds. There is something romantic about preserving the existence of a moment with a special person that forever changes you. Something so reassuring when someone holds your hand and a certain feeling loops between you and knots the both of you as one – a naïvely metaphysical recognition that the young Aomame and Tengo shared and carried to the present as young adults. It was not until their involvement with the fanatical antagonist (the religious cult Sakigake) and unwitting entry to 1Q84 (from the real 1984) that ultimately joined them. But the much-awaited reunion takes time as Murakami meticulously maps eerie patterns of supernatural inspirations that pique the novel’s ordinary backdrop, where he psychoanalyzes the characters through self-realization and external provocation. Once the reader follows the current of 1Q84’s windingly chronicle through the point-of-view characters, he/she will be entranced by the eloquence and persuasiveness of Murakami’s make-believe universe where two parallel dimensions exist. Whose oddness is not disorienting but adaptable, it becomes an unlikely medium for self-discovery and the romantic resolution of finding the love of one’s life.

Pre-1Q84, Aomame and Tengo are inconspicuous in the mundane milieu of a thriving Tokyo during the 1980s. But Murakami infuses fantasy that highlights their special qualities in a domain made miscible with strange circumstances. A sports instructor, Aomame moonlights as a murderess-with-a-cause who sends abusive men ‘to the other side’; while Tengo, who was a child prodigy, is settled as a mathematics cram teacher and the ghostwriter of 1Q84’s enigmatic Pandora’s box – the novelette Air Chrysalis. It’s unclear when did their immersion to the alternate world begin (Aomame has long been stupefied by the double lunar presence even before Tengo could describe their appearance in his working novel). In its perplexing glory, the two moons has surreptitiously drawn them together – the only rewarding light from the dark tunnel of ‘1Q84’, named by Aomame to the new reality after descending from the highway’s emergency exit (Chapter 1: Aomame “Don’t let appearances fool you). Before reaching the end, 1Q84 is divided into in three volumes that cover the duration (April-June, July-September, October-December) of Aomame and Tengo’s existence in 1Q84. Murakami’s ambitiousness is transcribed through the personal mythology of its characters and the fictitious history that ripples through them. Once the narrative vertex is achieved, 1Q84 becomes more than a sensational setting of mysterious events. The picture of two people attracted to the abnormal sight of two satellites is an earnest allegory of their similarity. Both found each other’s dearest company in the confounding corners of 1Q84. The difference is that Aomame and Tengo successfully escape the ‘other’ reality while the silver moon is the only inhabitant of the night sky with no smaller and greenish counterpart floating queerly on the side.

Back and front cover as the faces of Tengo and Aomame.

Not to give further away, 1Q84 is an absorbing literary adventure whose dalliance among the detective, fantasy and mystery genres delivers a sum unexpectedly more endearing than the parts of the whole. Deep in its core is a surreal romance that transcends through time and dimension. The rhetoric pronunciations could be overwhelming but Murakami stays his novel grounded with the genuine feelings of love, acceptance, sadness and hope. As the reader becomes more privy to the mind, heart and soul of Aomame and Tengo, a deep attachment grows that makes them more alive and identifiable as real people who are caught between unnatural situations. But their love story is (most personally) affecting and satisfying (two lonely individuals who had yearned to meet each other for so long — that’s the only goodness 1Q84 had brought in their lives).

(People would say ‘be careful of what you wish for’ but I would want to stay in a world as unpredictably dangerous and life-changing as 1Q84, where I can also develop a sense of purposefulness and grasp a better understanding of my individuality. Better yet, to find the person who is also looking for me. If he exists then I consider myself lucky. But if not, at least 1Q84 imparted that something worth believing is much better than losing the will to entrust one’s faith to either the tangible or the imaginable.)

Film Diary: Moon

July 20, 1969 – the day man first landed on the moon. Since then, this lunar being has been more than the constant orbiting companion of the Earth for the past, known light-years. It is the unsuspecting, intergalactic neighbor that welcomed one of man’s greatest achievements. With the burgeoning understanding of the satellite, its celestial presence soon transcended to the world of pop culture where it has become a recurring muse of science fiction – from cinematic dramatizations of extraterrestrial escapades to astronomic backdrops of the imagination’s limit. When modern filmmakers have trespassed fictitious planets and have hopscotched galaxies through wormholes, visiting the moon seemed like the easiest and most basic route. But the covered distance and elaborate fantasy are no guarantee for a worthwhile exospheric exploit. Man and moon have nurtured a scientific yet surreal recognition of each other’s existence that such relationship is the heart of Duncan Jones’s sublime and strikingly soulful first feature film, MOON.

Film poster

2035 – The year when Earth, due to an oil crisis, relies on alternative fuel (Helium-3) imported from the moon. Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole operator and resident of Lunar Industries’ automated lunar facility that caters to the planet’s energy demands. A committed but desolate employee who spends his nearly three-year stay on the satellite performing monotonous routines, Sam has been very much looking forward to be reunited with his family. But his last days of isolation were jinxed by troubling hallucinations that threaten his already-forlorn sanity, only to be debunked by the shattering truth. (Warning: Spoilers are coming).

What was then an immersion to the lonely lunar life became a subversive, dramatic confrontation of reality that no technological advancement can resolve in favor of its lead(s). Released four years before Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, MOON is an incandescent one-man play rooted on Sam’s recognition of his humanity, regardless of his biological composition. Before the game-changing incident, the audience can grasp the weight of Sam’s loneliness as he count down the days of his return to Earth. But what could be more devastating than knowing that you are not who you think you are? That the memories you cling as the motivation to live throughout the secluded period are not actually yours? One may think that Sam’s prolonged physical remoteness invites psychological tremors but the detection of delusions and doppelgangers revealed to be much more complex and challenging, especially to everything he believed in. It turns out, he is not one but one of the many… clones.

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Keeping himself in shape and sane.

Before MOON rotates on ethical conspiracy as its slow-burning theme, it is essentially a delicate dissection of man at his most vulnerable solitary state. Expecting to regain normalcy after his shift in space, Sam inopportunely uncovers his real biology that revaluates his purpose of living. He doesn’t have any family or an established life to return to. Worse, his synthetic mortality is endangered after discovering the other clone (I pertain to them as Sam I, the accident-ridden, sickly, and more emotional clone, and Sam II, the steely and levelheaded newer clone.) Both eventually disassociate themselves from their programmed identity and plan to flee from Lunar Industries’ unethical measures. It is uncertain if the original Sam is aware that he was cloned as part of his employment contract. But seeing the world (or more specifically the moon) through the clones’ eyes establishes a deeper attachment to these blameless characters who are under the leash of the laws of science, not nature. MOON reinforces one of the controversial debates on genetic procreation through the consequences dealt by the clones. But what is ethical (that Sam I and II were deprived) has a corresponding emotional blow that this British sci-fi drama uniquely showcases and fundamentally supported by its lonesome setting.

Sam Rockwell as the Sam-s.

Normally a nocturnal lux of mystery, the moon is stripped of the intrigue and anonymity in Jones’ onscreen treatment. It is bare, rocky and remote that triggers a claustrophobic sensation. But most importantly, the moon’s physical location and Sam’s condition is the film’s natural simile. Sam’s loneliness as he yearns for human contact is the overwhelming gravity that anchors the viewers’ emotional investment to him; the split of his character into two lead clones only compounded the feeling. Tapping the beguiling lead star that he can be, Rockwell is excellent yet criminally underrated where he confronts the existential crisis of his two clone roles. He doesn’t only spar against himself but also with GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an artificial intelligence which is surprisingly the film’s moral compass. It’s a marvel to see Rockwell lose his usual cool and audacity, and rebound from disbelief to acceptance after developing a dangerous curiosity that led to the devastating truth. But the sadness still prevails and stings when Sam I and II learn that their presumed identities make them no one. A video call to Earth confirmed their immaterial existence to the people who they longed to be reunited with, and to the company who can easily dispose them once they become a liability. A sad reality they grapple with, but whatever their origin is doesn’t make them less human. They plan to continue living their preordained existence. And the first step is, to escape from the moon.

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The moon is only a rock after all.

With only one actor but brimming of scientific and personal themes at the core of its metaphoric setting, MOON is a spectacular sight to behold to. Almost every cinematic element is in sync in crafting the factual and abstract features of the moon. The location is aesthetically isolated but altruistically intimate on Sam’s state of mind. Its poignant score heightens the emotional impact of Rockwell’s somber scenes. The minimalist production design inside the lunar facility evokes cageyness and caution, while the external shots of Sam maneuvering the craters of the moon are devoid of wonder; instead, are made acquainted to the bleak surrounding, ramrod infrastructure and heavy (oxygen-less) atmosphere, all simmering of paranoia.

Thought-provoking on its ambitious concepts and thoughtful on its value for life, MOON is a rare space drama among the galaxy of its overrated contemporaries. No other sci-fi is as poetic and potent as Duncan’s film that is relatively smaller in production scale (before moving on to Source Code). But more than Rockwell’s luminous acting vehicle, the silver screen portrayal of the moon is revealing, both in an accurate and allegoric fashion. Deeply profound and remarkably heartfelt, MOON sees the satellite on a different light…

How disarmingly perceptive it is.

Rating: 4.5/5.0

Capsule Review: Safety Not Guaranteed, Ex Machina, Jurassic World

Recently, I began observing a self-imposed rule on my viewing docket: designate one film genre per month. My previous post did have common denominator but I officially started last month by settling into the contemporary contributions to the pulpy world of science fiction. While it’s true that most of this genre’s concepts such as time-travelling, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic modifications are explored to either progressive or regressive effect, some tend to hurdle what is expected (which is besides stirring one’s imagination). In concrete examples, the personal experience is the center of gravity in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED which sidelined its sci-fi component by pulling its characters into an emotional orbit that revolves around disillusionment and dreams. Meanwhile, shivers ran down the robotic spine as an AI’s agency is tested and fought for control in EX MACHINA’s dangerous allegory about the future machinations of men who treat themselves as gods and saviors, only to be eliminated in the end. As for the hyped reopening of JURASSIC WORLD, it does invite nostalgia but the pure wonderment is extinct (am I the only one exasperated by the CGI combustion?). My unpopular opinion could be preceded by the name of its main attraction-turned-destruction, but leaving the iconic theme park behind has strengthened my belief that the unmatchable delight and beloved memories of the original film is definitely worth preserving.

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SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012)

With her works in Parks and Recreation and The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza is the unofficial ambassador of the modern-day skeptical yet pragmatic youth who (in this case) kindles the humble adventures of director Colin Trevorrow’s debut comedy. Darius (Plaza), her boss-writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and a fellow intern pursue an odd classified ad for their magazine article, only to find themselves in an eye-opening expedition that evokes the feelings of the past and abandons the existing pretentions for a dogged trip to the future. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED’s attention-grabbing premise is subversive of its overall payoff. Stowing its sci-fi element during the rest of the film for an astonishing finale, this indie comedy finds its charm on the earnestness of its characters who are caught up with the disillusionment on their present conditions. Darius, Jeff and the bizarre ad author Kenneth (Mark Duplass) are, in varying degrees, suffering from nostalgia who find ways to relive the past and resolve to carry on with their lives. The disenchantment Darius particularly experiences is recognizable that she is easily empathized as her conviction grows in finding something (or someone) she could believe into. Jeff may or may not end up publishing the piece about a man looking for company in his time-travelling mission but SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is itself a satisfying human interest story, both candid and contemplative, with the right amount of incredulity, inquisitiveness and individuality that builds for a refreshing sci-fi cause.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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EX MACHINA (2015)

Fashioning itself as a foreboding sci-fi parable (ex. Under the Skin), EX MACHINA is a gripping and though-provoking thriller that envisions the fight for control over machines, both by men and themselves by means of AI. First-time director Alex Garland creates an arresting atmosphere on the external and in-house shots that diffuses the film’s intellectual moodiness. As a rare minimalist (per the genre’s convention), the focus is heavier in establishing its ambitious ideas to the setting (the confined areas of technological invincibility/downfall with the brewing tension among its characters) than the computer-generated effects, which is more compelling to the astute viewer. The audience adapts in the film’s futuristic world through Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young programmer premeditatedly chosen by the eccentric and capricious company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to perform the Turing test to his latest humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). With the programming sourced from billions of accessible and hacked personal information, the questionable ethicality of Nathan’s research and development dawns in Caleb, which is further heightened by his burgeoning mutual understanding (and unsolicited warnings of) with Ava. Unraveling to its startling climax, EX MACHINA becomes more than the exploration of the authoritative relationship between man and machine. Ava is an ingenious metaphor for a female creation grasping her agency and utilizing it for survival, that turns out to be both humanizing and terrifying. It’s a threatening reality that Garland convincingly suggests, along particularly with Vikander on her sharp sensibilities as the robot in observation. Ava may have outmaneuvered her creator and savior but the real danger is weighed between man’s abusive and controlling genius and a machine’s unpredictable recognition of its potentials. EX MACHINA is the latest speculative fiction that proves to be more fascinating than it looks, and at the same time, is a subtle cautionary tale on the recipients of trust. Knowledge is power but betrayal, as Caleb and Nathan fatally learn, could render that power useless.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

The Jurassic Park franchise gets a new lease of life in the hands of Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed!) on the passably entertaining yet thematically deficient fourth motion picture (with creator Steven Spielberg’s blessing). After the unmemorable second and third installments, JURASSIC WORLD, to its credit, is a welcome rebirth that relishes the glory of the first film with its new cast led by the always likable Chris Pratt. The extinct species’ return to the big screen is inevitable given the advancement on filmmaking’s technology and the latest Jurassic film follows the same principle by creating genetically-modified dinosaurs of the comparative degree. But what is bigger is not always better and while the visuals are a definite enhancement, JURASSIC WORLD doesn’t capture the genuine curiosity, wonderment and exhilaration of the series’ alpha. As Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) says in her businesslike tone, kids nowadays are not impressed by dinosaurs anymore. On the contrary, the film doesn’t impart a satisfying postscript apart from the fleeting adventurous thrills and comedic timings. Despite the cast’s representative roles and the establishment of corporate greed and responsibility, JURASSIC WORLD is hollow on character development and moral emphasis which is a criminal undoing of a monster movie (i.e. the metaphoric superiority of Garett Edward’s Godzilla over the human populace). Pratt earns a few moments in brokering the interesting bond between man and dinosaur but such relationship is only exploited for narrative functionality and not on the meaningful acknowledgement of respect in the laws of nature. Trevorrow sneaks in little pleasures but he tumbles in translating the more relevant themes in a bigger and more technical scale. JURASSIC WORLD, nevertheless, is still a pleasurable adventure blockbuster but this time, it’s better to compare it with its league of big-budgeted flicks than the unparalleled original.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

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Next Sci-fi attraction: Sam Rockwell and the marvelous rock that is MOON

Capsule Review: Jane Eyre, Run Lola Run, Martha Marcy May Marlene 

It’s about time that I finally get to write about female-centric films, particularly these three titles that are captivating and stimulating in their own strange ways. A gothic period drama, a foreign thriller, and a psychological drama, each film probes the female psyche with stylish finesse that creates canvasses of individualism in poignant, kinetic and disquieting atmospheres, respectively. These films are also notable in spawning a fountain of new talent: auteur directors and auspicious actors in their flourishing filmographies. More than what meets the eye, these eponymous characters are kindled in varying dark undertones; their complexities shed in an intriguing new light that undresses a deeper characterization of women in cinema.

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JANE EYRE (2011)

Before True Detective and the upcoming Crimson Peak, Director Cary Fukunaga and Mia Wasikowska teamed up in the moody yet mesmerizing onscreen adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s literary classic. Oozing with passion and pulsating with conviction, Fukunaga’s JANE EYRE revives the fictional heroine with gothic intrigue and unflinching grittiness that shape Jane to be the redeemed protagonist she truly deserves. The tribulations she experienced in her formative years have steeled her as a woman of agency that is tested when she becomes a young governess to the ward of the enigmatic Mr. Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Wasikowska ideally captures Jane’s willowy physique and youth but her acclaimed performance is anchored deeply on her mature beliefs and impassioned declarations that reverberate to the core of her character. She contains the emotional flare of Jane to a nuanced effect, much like Fukunaga who deftly infuses gothic and supernatural influences in a romantic period drama and remain consistently perceptive throughout the film. Fassbender fills in the role of Mr. Rochester with charismatic mystery, breathlessly piquing the audience’s (and Jane’s) curiosity about his identity and secret. Judi Dench also stars as the benevolent Mrs. Fairfax. JANE EYRE is palpably fervent both in its feminist nature and sensible commentary on its narrative setting, thus stirring itself as an empowering and potent film, not just among the earlier cinematic versions of its source material but also in the history of period adaptations.

Rating: 4.0/5.0

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RUN LOLA RUN / LOLA RENNT (1998)

Transported to a world where fate and willpower collide, RUN LOLA RUN’s tenacity is one-of-a-kind; an experimental showcase of mixed art whose thematic strength comes from the unwavering determination and stamina of its titular character. With only 20 minutes to fulfill a call for help, Lola (Franka Potente) runs along the streets of Berlin, carrying with her numerous possibilities in her brief social interactions. RUN LOLA RUN toys around the casual dynamics of cause and effect with fortitude as the main variable; thus surprising in its unnatural execution of three scenarios, albeit three runs that Lola undergo to achieve the best possible outcome. Despite following the same route, the film becomes unpredictable on the obstacles which Lola encounters differently. Through her agility, persistence and resourcefulness, she becomes an unlikely heroine to cheer for. RUN LOLA RUN may be uncanny on presenting how willpower could win against chance. Perhaps this is what the film suggests; a philosophy on how destiny and determinism plays and duels in infinite circumstances and what prevails in the end is the matter of one’s consciousness, which this German thriller has vividly and effectively depicted.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (2011)

Elizabeth Olsen makes a startling debut as a young woman who escapes a cult and struggles back to normalcy in Sean Durkin’s harrowing psychological drama. Stripping its lead star of naivety for a revealingly complex role, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE unmasks the workings of a cult through the broken and manipulated mind of Martha (Olsen) who reconnects with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson), after abandoning the abusive cult ran by its beguiling leader, Patrick (John Hawkes). Implied to have a troubled life before joining the group, the mystery behind Martha’s two-year excursion is illuminated through flashbacks that maliciously blur her adjustment to the normal life. As the camera captures in cool yet murky colors the questionable daily routines of the cult, Martha accustoms herself to the blind beliefs Patrick instilled on his followers which rationalizes the abnormal nature of their household. But the real challenge is grasping Martha’s behavior whose damaged personality makes her an ambiguous yet affecting character that Olsen outstandingly pulls off. She shows an overwhelming emotional complexity that grounds the film’s authenticity. With a solid supporting cast pulling Martha’s mindset in a tug of war of false and true realities, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE is an intimate yet vicious dip in the mind of a victim, a prey psychologically vexed by a predator. Closed by a vague cliffhanger, the film maintains its perplexity since the beginning, but with a more troubling afterthought on Martha’s impassiveness towards her future than her tormented past.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Film Diary: Closer (Tribute to Mike Nichols, Part 2)

CLOSER (2004)

Love and lies are what makes the world go round in CLOSER, Director Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the award-winning stage play that dips into precarious corners of romance among its four characters who are driven of passion, jealousy, and deceit. The film is teeming of discourse and introspection on its central idea – love plagued by infidelity and dishonesty that are eloquently conveyed in the modern-day setting. It explores the dynamics of its beguiling quartet through the permutation of impassioned pairs, contesting over their notions of love and relationships. The intriguing premise around its striking ensemble may have drawn viewers closer, but the quarter of the whole is more satisfying than the overall. For all its grand romantic rhetoric, CLOSER is more of a collection of vain abstractions than an empathic character study. The passion is palpable but impersonal, thus not transcending to where the medium intends it to be.

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No matter how personal its themes are, CLOSER tends to feel aloof. Maybe because of how imposing yet unambiguous its proposition is. How untruthfulness can destroy relationships is the universal truth after all, but the film attempts to overcomplicate itself that the tension doesn’t feel organic anymore (that could spell the difference in effectiveness between on stage and onscreen). The experimental couplings don’t necessarily achieve the desired compelling results but two actors in particular are revealing that they upstage the other two. Natalie Portman in her surprisingly provocative demeanor (before Black Swan) and Clive Owen in a commanding supporting role (both were Oscar-nominated) brought their characters’ passion as close as it can get to the audience. The actors may have stood as prop for the film’s subject matter but Portman and Owen are more affectingly flawed than Julia Roberts and Jude Law. It’s not their fault anyway, as the romantic drama is weighed down by imbalance that favors its contrived emotional milieu than the essence of its characters.

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Though CLOSER is more engrossed in idea than the persona, it is articulate on the pronouncements of love, lies and lust and becomes persuasive of the world it presents. The dialogue is eloquent regardless of its agitated, sensual and somber nature as the script is also penned by the same playwright, Patrick Marber. Being the director who observes the truthfulness of human emotions, Nichols doesn’t shy from the rare, blistering romantic drama that CLOSER successfully channels. His realism shuns the melodrama with the ample amount of frustration and insecurity that sharpens the bluntness of each line. While the frank conversations maybe devoid of metaphoric significance, the film compensates through the sober strums of Damien Rice’s “The Blower’s Daughter” that opens and closes CLOSER in similar scenes with Alice Ayers (Portman) as the only redeemed character. Her disarming beauty, stubborn precocity and envied youth are somehow objectified that sets the story in motion. But her entanglement with Dan (Law), Anna (Roberts) and Larry (Owen) was, for what it’s worth, settles her in the most resilient position. And she does say the most concise break-up line in history.

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A romantic roundabout that speaks the malice of love, CLOSER is more observing than feeling. The film’s objectivity on love and its unattractive dimensions are baffling, considering how fundamental the supreme emotion is to the existence of its characters. Nichols’ second-to-the-last film showcases one of the most depressing insights on love… but parts with the importance of loving one’s self. How can someone love if he/she is incapable of accepting his/her true identity and banishing his/her insecurity? (At least that’s how I grasp the film’s less self-absorbed message.)

CLOSER is an inviting romantic drama whose payoff deviates from what was anticipated. Love should bring people closer, not farther. But perhaps it’s the film’s intention to create such scenario to ponder the consequences… With that, I compromise.

RATING: 3.0/5.0